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kwheeler's picture

Class Summary 11/27/07

We started out discussion by hearing our classmate’s initial reactions to Stein and Hacker’s poetry. The response from the class on Stein’s Lifting Belly was overwhelmingly negative; many of us felt that her style is annoying and confusing. When asked why we had such an adverse reaction we discovered that a lot of us struggled with her language, lack of any discernable structure and felt like our attempts at “understanding” the poem were “fruitless”. Jessy said that she immediately associated the title with sex (an interpretation that stuck with us for the remainder of the class), and therefore as she read the poem she was in a sense trying to prove her “hypothesis”. She suggested that maybe the poem was supposed to be interpreted as the reader comprehends it and that Stein didn’t want us to read it in a specific way…

We were even undecided on a very basic level as to who Stein was actually addressing in the poem, if anyone. Was Lifting Belly a conversation with Alice B. Toklas? Stein’s internal conversation with herself? Or perhaps a stream of thoughts, representative of her subconscious? Dalke suggested that this might account for the poem’s explicability and lack of structure… and that we should stop digging for meaning in the poem! Perhaps it was meant to enjoyed for its aesthetic qualities rather than its meaning.

If Stein’s poems were incomprehensible, we thought that Hacker’s were the complete opposite. A couple of us commented on how obvious and explicit the intent of her poems are. The poem we read in class was criticized for not using much (if any) metaphor or imagery. Lydia identified the descriptive words used by Hacker to be very tactile as opposed to Truong’s writing which includes more sensory diversity. Hacker succeeds in ironically inserting lesbian erotica into a traditional style of poetry but fails (according to some) to include any of the metaphor or deeper meaning that we like to see in poetry.

After hearing our initial reactions the poems, Dalke asked us to focus our attention on Stein’s Lifting Belly in what seemed like a conscious attempt to instill in us some appreciation for Mark Lord’s favorite American poet. We split into pairs and were assigned parts of the poem to discuss. A few of us felt that we had deciphered GertrudeStein’s “code”, but when we discussed our “findings” with the whole class, we were informed that we were going about readings Stein’s work in the wrong way. Dalke said trying to decode Stein’s work misses the point. However, this is not to say that we aren’t supposed to find meaning in the poem.

Some interesting interpretations of the text were:

(65) The stanza beginning “Sometimes we readily decide upon…”

We thought that this stanza was evoking a clichéd scene of sex and that Stein was writing about conventionality.

· (68) “Lifting belly is amiss” amiss ~ a miss ~ a Miss

· (68-9) “Lifting belly is so erroneous.

I don’t like to be teased and worried.

Lifting belly is so accurate.”

Assuming that lifting belly is a metaphor for lesbian sexuality, we thought that this section could be representative of it not being socially acceptable; it is erroneous or wrong when to Stein it feels right or “accurate”.

· (91) “I say lifting belly and I say lifting belly and Caesars.” Caesars ~ seize hers ~ seizures, alluding to sex

· (95) “Can you mention her brother.

Yes.

Her father.

Yes.

A married couple.

Yes.”

We thought this contributed to her commentary on the heteronormative.

So the overarching ideas that we were able to draw out from Stein’s poem were that she was making a commentary about the conventionality and the hetero-normative. This explains her decision not to use fluency of the language given to her and not to have a linear, logical plot. She wanted us to read/be in the moment when we are reading her poem, to appreciate the aesthetic nature of it and understand her overall message without trying to “wring out” a literal translation of her text. By defying grammatical and structural norms she was defying normative rules and institutions and was therefore maybe trying to create a space in the world for lesbian sexuality.

We ended with a thought-provoking quote from Jeanette Winterson which challenged us to move beyond the questions “Do I like this?” Many of us initially did not like Stein’s poem, Winterson suggests that this is because the poem falls “outside of the safety of your own experience”. A poem (such as Stein’s) requires that the reader struggles and works with the text in order understand it; we should not reject Stein’s poetry just because her meaning is not immediately accessible!

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